A cup of kindness

A tradition started in Italy over a hundred years ago has recently re-emerged as a massive global movement of selflessness and compassion. Veronique Mistiaen reports on the ‘suspended coffee’ phenomenon

A humble tradition that began in Naples, Italy 100 years ago has re-emerged as a massive global solidarity movement – a symbol of kindness at a time of growing economic hardship.

The custom of ‘caffè sospeso’ or ‘suspended coffee’ is when a customer pays for an extra cup of coffee, which someone in need can claim later. It’s a graceful and easy way of showing generosity, as donors and beneficiaries never meet.

The tradition waned over the past decades but has now made a comeback. It re-emerged first in Bulgaria, Spain and other European countries ravaged by the economic crisis, and is now spreading all over the world thanks to the internet and social media. The website www.coffeesharing.com lists 166 participating coffee places in 115 cities and 18 countries, but that’s just a small sample. In the UK alone more than 150 cafes have joined the movement. Even Starbucks has jumped on board, although they serve the suspended coffees in hubs run by Christian charity Oasis, rather than in their shops.

A global online community has formed around the campaign with websites and Facebook pages springing up across the globe, sharing stories and spreading the concept. One of the most popular sites, created in March 2013 by John Sweeney, a father of four from Cork, Ireland, has attracted more than 100,000 ‘likes’. The site offers stickers, posters and logos to participating cafes and a space where shop owners and citizens can share their suspended coffee experiences.

Some claim that coffee is an unnecessary indulgence, but it’s precisely the ‘treat’ aspect of it that makes the concept so appealing. “I definitely think that the luxury of a coffee is a big part of the success of the campaign, and at $4, it’s a simple luxury to be able to share with someone else,” says Amanda Matulick, who runs E for Ethel, a gift shop and coffee bar in North Adelaide, Australia.

Like most cafe owners, Matulick learned about the campaign on Facebook. “There was a story circulating with an emotive photo of a little old man sitting in a warm cafe on a cold day sipping on a suspended coffee and it tugged at our heartstrings – we knew we had to be a part of it all,” she says. “It’s an inspiring campaign – to make someone else’s day a little bit happier through a cup of coffee – and it’s simple for a cafe to be involved with.”

“It’s an inspiring campaign – to make someone else’s day a little bit happier through a cup of coffee – and it’s simple for a cafe to be involved with”

Since April 2013, her customers have donated more than 225 suspended coffees. “The support has been utterly amazing. Some customers buy a suspended coffee each time they get one for themselves, others purchase a larger stash all at once. They love hearing the updates and the stories from our experiences with people on the receiving end.”

Comments on suspended coffee websites suggest that people worry about who is eligible for a free coffee, but most cafes have decided that if someone is asking for one, they are probably in need in some way.

“We decided right from the outset that we would place no judgment or question on a request for coffee,” Matulick says. “Anyone who asks for one may have one. We don’t believe we have the right to make an assessment based on appearance and it’s not our right to ask anyone to prove that they are in need.”

People are also concerned that hordes of homeless people will swarm coffee shops, making them uncomfortable for regular customers, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. If anything, many shop owners report that not enough people are claiming their free coffees, so they are working with local charities to spread the word. “And it’s not just for someone who is homeless,” says Sweeney. “It may be a single mother with seven kids who may just need a coffee to get her through the day or a man in a business suit who is in his 16th week of job hunting.”

“The people we’ve met through our involvement in the campaign are dear, lovely folk who’ve seen some rough times,” Matulick says. “They’re often quiet and feel a little intimated by the whole thing. Even just walking into a cafe space can be terrifying when you’re used to being hidden from and by society. But we love meeting the characters and welcoming them into our space – one gentleman offers to do the dishes and another leaves his meals with us as he doesn’t have freezer space to store them in.”

Food for thought

The suspended coffee movement obviously involves coffee, but in the same spirit, some places have started offering suspended soup, biscuits or sandwiches and a few countries have given the concept a national twist. In China, for example, nine cities are now offering suspended noodle dishes, and in Belgium, the owner of a Brussels fritkot (chip stand) has invented the ‘frite suspendue’.

Across the country, french fries are served in paper cones with a large dollop of mayonnaise and eaten on the street at all hours. The frite suspendue has quickly become very popular because a fritkot is accessible, unintimidating, open every day until midnight and it’s a meeting place, says Eric Duhamel, owner of the Bompa Fritkot. “Those who come for a frite suspendue are a bit shy at first. Then they tell their stories. And that’s the point: it goes further than just giving someone €2,” he told the Belgian press.

And Sweeney agrees: the suspended movement is primarily about showing solidarity and creating a community. “It’s about getting people to support each other again, to show compassion, love and empathy,” he says. “To show we’ve all been there. To encourage you to keep going. To get you through the day. To remind you to be strong, to celebrate you.”

Read it and don’t weep.

Headlines about what’s going right in the world are now being shared with millions of people through digital screens on high streets and in shopping centres all around the UK.